Murder mysteries are tricky business. The stakes are always clear and incredibly high, but the tried-and-true machinations of the genre can wear out their welcome fast. Shows trying to escape cliché sometimes stretch too far, sabotaging the believability of their creation just to keep the viewer guessing.
Police procedurals like CSI avoid this problem by wrapping up each case within the hour and occasionally tossing in a meme for good measure. David Lynch’s oft-compared to Twin Peaks got by on sheer weirdness. Scores of others adhere to the predictable routine of Crime-Clue-Clue-Solution.
AMC’s new drama The Killing walks and talks like standard procedural fare, but after only four episodes it’s already showing that sometimes mysteries aren’t so simple. (Minor spoilers, I guess.)
The Killing opens with a woman jogging in the woods in daylight. She’s the victim, I think. Cut to a girl screaming as she flees through the woods at night. Oh, she’s the victim. Cutting back and forth, they both approach a riverbed. That woman’s going to find her dead, I think. Cut to the woman looking at a dead animal. It’s twenty minutes before the cat and mouse game ends and we’re actually presented with information about the girl from the woods. The Killing plays this game well and often, keeping one of televisions oldest stories fresh and surprising.
The investigation of Rosie Larsen’s murder takes place in rainy Seattle, Washington, seemingly chosen as much for its remoteness as its climate. The Killing’s Seattle functions as a kind of EveryCity, USA, with its mix of inner-city gang issues, middle class financial worries, and dirty local politics. The sky, the truth, morality: everything is gray. It’s an effective backdrop that calls little attention to itself, all the better for the characters to shine.
On the case are homicide detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder. Linden, played by Mireille Enos, wants out. She has a new fiancee, and she’d love to move to California with him and her adolescent son. She’s dry, soft-spoken, and primed for a massive breakdown. The pressures of this, her last case, are mounting and I can’t imagine she’ll make it through this season unscathed. Joel Kinnaman plays Holder, an ex-undercover narcotics agent who transfers to homicide on Linden’s supposed last day. His methods are unorthodox (bribing teenagers with weed to extract information), his demeanor combative and sarcastic. He’s the most intriguing character of the lot, and Kinnaman steals scenes with a street rat’s expertise and flair.
The Killing’s miserly drip of information doesn’t apply solely to the murder. Backstory on the duo is spare. Holder’s shady narcotics history seems ripe for questionable actions later on, and Linden’s difficult situation at home isn’t dwelled on, lest it interrupt the already methodical flow of the plot.
Mysteries abound elsewhere, too, in politics and grief. Mayoral candidate Darren Richmond has leaks in his campaign office, and there may be connections between someone on his staff and the murder. The Larsen family, Rosie’s parents Stanley and Mitch and their two sons, deal with the day to day shocks and surprises of loss. Even their grief is subject to The Killing’s piecemeal delivery of clues and answers.
In one of the show’s most moving scenes, Stanley drives out to the lake where Rosie’s body’s been found. He’s on the phone with his wife when he hits a police blockade just outside the crime scene. Still on the phone with Mitch, he screams and fights to get past. Mitch collapses to her kitchen floor in tears, begging Stanley to tell her what’s going on. Rosie’s brothers watch their mother in stunned silence with no idea what’s happened to their sister.
We never get a clear picture of Rosie, either. audience, Rosie is a girl on video at a party, a wall of evidence photos, or a covered body in a morgue. Just as the camera pans in her direction, it cuts to a reaction, an embrace. Chances are we’ll never see Rosie head on, and that’s probably for the best.
The Killing toys with the audience like an expert poker player, shades on, hand clutched tight to the chest. Every lead has been similarly obtuse and frustrating. Troubling new pieces of evidence are introduced each episode only to be subverted the following week, and excellent characters easily distract me from my own sleuthing.
Even if I can figure out who killed Rosie Larsen, I’ll tune in each week until I know why.